How To Save a Mix Using Unorthodox Techniques
Audio engineers are frequently asked to "fix it in the mix" — something we affectionately refer to as "turd polishing."
Pro-recorded projects generally only need a bit of EQ and compression. Home-brewed recording sometimes require a few extra steps, such as removing background noise.
Then there are those oddball projects that require a bit of ingenuity. These are the mixes that will really test your skills as an engineer.
These mixes will force you to invent new, non-traditional ways to solve problems. In this blog, we'll discuss a few unorthodox techniques you can use right now to save your most problematic mixes.
Enlist Audio-to-MIDI to Rescue Weak Bass Guitars
Inexperienced engineers often struggle with recording bass guitars. They'll track with either too much low end or not enough.
Minor tonal imbalances can be resolved with the usual EQ maneuvers. That said, if the track is completely askew, EQ might not cut it.
If you're not able to re-record the track, don't fret — all is not lost! Where there's a will, there's a way!
You can use an audio-to-MIDI converter (many DAWs include this function) to convert the track to MIDI. This is similar to the way in which drum replacement works.
After that, feed the MIDI to your virtual sampler of choice to re-create the bass track with awesome, studio-quality sound. Lastly, EQ the original track as best you can (our MIXROOM offers a near-foolproof solution), then blend the new track with the original track to maintain the track's intended sonic flavor.
Deploy an Amp Modeler to Fix Out-of-phase Stereo Guitars
Double tracking guitars and hard panning them left and right is a common way to attain wide-sounding guitar tracks. Unfortunately, the similarities between the two tracks can sometimes lead to phasing issues when you fold your mix down to mono.
The easy way to fix this is to nudge one of the tracks forward and backward to align the tracks and fix the issue. That said, sometimes this doesn't work.
The next solution is to simply re-record one of the tracks. Of course, this isn't always possible — especially if you're mixing somebody else's project.
Here's an unorthodox fix: run at least one of the tracks through an amp simulator plug-in.
Gain staging will be different than if you were processing a raw guitar signal, and the amp sims will change the fundamental character of the track, but that's the point! The resulting track will be different enough from the original track that phase coherence will no longer be an issue.
Use Convolution Reverb to Fix Boxy-sounding Drums
Home recordists oftentimes record in less-than-perfect acoustic environments, such as bedrooms, basements, and garages.
A modest investment in acoustic treatment can safeguard your vocal and miked guitar tracks. Beyond that, you can DI your bass and use virtual instruments and amp modeling software to achieve studio-quality keyboards and electric guitars.
Acoustic drums, on the other hand, are a completely different story. Even if you mic up your kit with expert precision, nine out of ten times, you're going to achieve subpar results.
If you use high-quality microphones and proper technique, your close-miked kit elements will probably sound fine — full and punchy — like an authentic studio-produced track (that's the beauty of close miking). Conversely, your overhead and room mics can sound puny and boxy — like drums recorded in a bedroom, basement, or garage.
Sample replacement is an easy fix for this. That said, drummers spend a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and money perfecting their sound — why disregard their hard work?
An unconventional workaround is to replace the drum room track with a convolution reverb plug-in. With all of the drum room IRs available — some for free — you can make your kit sound like it was recorded in a famous, world-class studio.
To do this, just run a balanced mix of your drum tracks through the reverb and print the result. You can even take this technique a step further by augmenting your overhead mic track with a blend of close-miked drums and the same IR as the room mic track.
You'll be shocked at how huge your drum mix will sound after applying this technique. You'll get a near-studio-quality sound — without the sky-high hourly rates of a professional studio.
Apply a Gated Reverb to Add Energy to a Lifeless Snare
As we already mentioned, folks who record at home are generally fighting against less-than-ideal acoustics. Using close-miking techniques is a common way to minimize the influence of a bad-sounding room; unfortunately, it can result in tracks that are dryer and staler than day-old toast.
Adding delays and reverbs to your tracks is the most common-sense way to combat overly dry tracks. That said, this doesn't work well on drum tracks, especially the snare drum.
Instead of massive-sounding acoustic drums, you'll end up with the sound of a puny, lifeless kit in a great big room. Unless you're specifically aiming for a beating-on-a-sack-of-oatmeal-in-a-cave-vibe, this is not a good way to go.
Like any other problematic drum track, sample replacement is an easy fix for this. But what if you want to preserve your original drum tracks?
Start by compressing your kick, snare, and toms — 1dB–3dB of gain reduction with a slow attack and fast release should do the trick. Then add gates to control unwanted background noise and to shape each drum kit element's release envelope.
Finally, instantiate a gated reverb plug-in on your snare drum — in mono — to give lengthen its decay time and give it a sense of space. Pro tip: be conservative, or you're going to re-create the dreaded "bad 1980s gated snare" sound.
Overprocess to Hide Poorly Recorded Tracks
If you mix projects for other people, you'll inevitably be handed a project that was tracked poorly. If this happens, your first course of action should be to convince the artist to re-record the offensive tracks.
If the artist can't (or won't) re-record the tracks, then it's time to pull out the big guns. It's in situations like this that you throw caution to the wind, process the track in ways that seem completely nonsensical, and hope for the best.
For example, say you're handed a comp track with mismatched segments. For example, the segments have different volumes, sound like they were recorded in different environments, have different amounts of saturation character, etc.
Compression is a great way to tackle volume inconsistencies. Don't be afraid to get heavy-handed — you can even use more than one compressor in series if that's what it takes to achieve a uniform-sounding track.
For character discrepancies, try running the track through a distortion, saturation, or bit-crushing plug-in. Our ANIMATE plug-in includes an IGNITE module that works great for this.
Add subtle distortion to the already-saturated portions of the track and distort the cleaner sections until they sound roughly the same as the already-distorted parts.
When you're finished, the track may not be perfect, but it will have cohesion — the main element that it was missing. And who knows, you may stumble upon a new signature sound!
These techniques are just the tip of the iceberg. There are an unlimited number of mixing tips and tricks out there — the kind that they don't teach you in recording school.
As you progress in your mixing career, you're sure to develop a few of your own nontraditional techniques — we all have them. And your clients will probably think you're a genius when you deploy them!